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Fox Home Entertainment / 1970 / 170 Minutes / Rated PG
Street Date: June 03, 2008
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Friday, May 30, 2008
Having seen 'Patton' more times than I care to count over the years, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the film. So imagine my surprise when the special features on 'Patton's latest home video release introduced me to the production's troubled history and the studio’s firing of the film's original director, Francis Ford Coppola (two years prior to his career-defining directorial effort, 'The Godfather.') Ultimately, the fact that the film itself overshadows all that is a testament to its creators -- as far as I can tell, all the behind-the-scenes drama didn't have any negative effect on the end result.
'Patton' is a skillfully balanced biopic of the notorious American General George S. Patton (George C. Scott), and his exploits in World War II. Without a single scene devoted to Patton's personal life, director Franklin Schaffner ('Planet of the Apes,' 'Lionheart') focuses on the legendary general's difficult military career, tactical victories, and contentious behavior. Beginning with his encounter with Rommel in North Africa, the film takes us on a historical tour of Patton’s campaigns in Tunisia, Italy, France, and Germany. Unfortunately, the general is more adept at stirring up resentment among his own men than his enemies and his career nearly unravels at every turn. As the war winds to a close, Patton’s ego drifts out of control, his views and comments earn him disdain, and his questionable actions threaten to spoil his legacy.
Scott was born to play Patton. His incensed eyes and furrowed brow connect with his gravelly voice to single-handedly craft the archetypal image of a hardened, out-of-touch warlord. He plays each scene with conviction, swinging wildly from one extreme to the next, injecting a level of unpredictability into the character that made him the clear choice for Best Actor at the 1971 Academy Awards. As it stands, I can’t imagine a single actor who could have worked such on-screen magic with an inherently unlikeable antihero. He presents Patton as a bipolar egomaniac who just so happens to be a strategic genius -- his tactless outbursts transform the general into a force of nature that confuses his superiors and alienates his men. In essence, Scott exposes the frail humanity in the historical Patton, playing the script as a tragedy, rather than a glorification of its subject. By the time the end credits roll, Scott has thoroughly established himself as an essential component of cinematic history.
When ‘Patton’ stumbles, the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of its supporting cast. While they tend to react realistically to Scott’s whirlwind behavior, there are a few too many bottom-rung performers who deliver their lines with the conviction of rain-soaked cardboard. Admittedly, it would be nearly impossible for anyone to stand out next to Scott’s scene-stealing performance, but better casting likely would have gone a long way in increasing the believability of the film’s subplots. Truth be told, this is a fairly common complaint I have with classic cinema and one that most people choose to forgive as a product of the era.
One warning for the unintiated: Though it's thought of as a war flick, 'Patton' is by no means an action-heavy spectacle. The screenplay (co-written by Coppola and Edmund H. North) focuses on the man rather than his victories and the film sticks to this dramatic formula from beginning to end. As a character study, 'Patton' is an astounding achievement that deserves every one of the accolades it has received. As a showcase of George C. Scott’s abilities, it’s an exceptional introduction to one of the finest performances of all time. In short, if you're a student of history and/or classic cinema, 'Patton' is an easy recommend.
I didn't know what to expect when I slid 'Patton' into my BD player -- would Fox revitalize the thirty-eight-year old classic or would it give it the same shallow coat of paint it's given other catalog remasters? To my relief, the moment George C. Scott makes his appearance in front of that enormous American flag, I knew Fox hadn’t let me down.
'Patton' features a striking 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that offers a dramatic improvement over the film’s other home video incarnations. The palette is vibrant and naturalistic, black levels are engrossing, and detail is quite revealing. It’s easy to see the stitching on the general’s medals, the smallest creases in his coat, and every wrinkle in his aging face. Best of all, dark shadows, overcast skies, and low-light interiors fail to hinder the transfer’s proficiency -- the image is startlingly clean and I didn’t catch any artifacting, crushing, edge enhancement or major print damage.
If it weren’t for a few troublesome issues, I would place this one squarely alongside the miraculous BD transfer that reinvigorated '2001: A Space Odyssey' last year. The biggest problem with the release is a light application of DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) that smudges the most intricate on-screen textures and inadvertently eliminates some of the fine detail from the original print. On a lesser note, reds often lean ever-so-slightly toward green, leaving the American flag’s cherry stripes looking a bit sickly. The same issue also robs fleshtones of their expected rosiness -- I know ‘Patton’ is meant to be a rather bleak character study, but I constantly felt as if the skintones were a hair off center. Finally, wavering and softness disrupt about a half-dozen scenes, standing out only compared to the proficiency of the rest of the remaster.
These nitpicks aside, 'Patton' looks great for its age and once again proves studios can work visual wonders when they put forth the effort. Not only does this transfer easily outshine all previous DVD releases of the film, but it manages to outclass the vast majority of catalog remasters on the BD market. Now if only Fox would abandon DNR and deliver faithful catalog remasters...
As you might expect given the film's age, the one aspect of 'Patton's high-def debut that comes up short is its fairly standard DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. First and foremost, the track lacks the LFE resonance and aggressive rear support found on other catalog remixes I’ve reviewed. The mix struggles with its immersive qualities and never completely invites the listener to envelop himself in the experience. Gunshots sound tinny, explosions are a tad hollow, and Patton’s tanks don’t rumble with the earth-grinding growl you might hope for. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the low-end extension weak, it’s just not as engaging as better catalog remixes. As for the soundfield, although the rear channels pipe up rather vigorously in the midst of key battles, they fail to realistically enhance the acoustics and ambient presence of quieter scenes in the film.
On a more positive note, the film’s dialogue is crisp, stable, and evenly spread across the front channels. While such clarity may not seem like a significant advantage for a war film’s audio track, the majority of the story focuses on the general’s conversations and interpersonal conflicts. His arguments and speeches sound much better than they did on earlier DVD editions and only suffer from two sporadic prioritization issues: a handful of lines are lost in the soundscape, and a few scenes are haunted by a subtle hiss. The first problem made me consider turning on the subtitle track from time to time, while the second made it clear that 'Patton's DTS remixers had already enhanced sections of dialogue to the point of exposing the track to noise.
The lone source of true audio perfection comes via the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith. Powerful and deftly balanced across the channels, Goldsmith's eerie melodies and fierce symphonies made it easier to forget everything about the track that bothered me. Ultimately, this BD sounds much better than its standard DVD counterparts and the issues I've listed are admittedly minor considering the film’s age. The audio on this conversational biopic may not stand up to Fox's DTS-HD MA tracks, but it still manages to offer fans and history buffs an above average catalog experience.
Happily, this Blu-ray edition of 'Patton' includes all of the lengthy special features that graced the 2006 Cinema Classics Edition DVD. Instead of trimming material to fit everything onto a single disc, Fox has finally taken the high road and spread the film and its features across two discs. Sure, I could complain that the second disc is merely an SD DVD (identical to the companion disc included with the DVD version), but it’s a minor gripe I’m more than happy to live with considering I won’t have to settle for a slimmer supplemental package. As it stands, this 2-disc set offers a whopping eight hours of high-quality bonus material that adds tremendous value to ‘Patton’s BD debut.
- Introduction (SD, 5 minutes) -- Francis Ford Coppola provides a concise overview of his work on ‘Patton,’ his fallout with the studio, and the film’s problematic production. I usually don’t recommend introductions, but this one should give viewers a deeper appreciation of the final film.
- Audio Commentary -- If you enjoyed the humility and forthright tone of Coppola’s introduction, you’re in for a real treat when you listen to his commentary. He dives head-first into the pressure he encountered from the studio, his eventual exclusion from the production, and his post-'Patton' career boost (courtesy of a screenplay Oscar). Despite some palpable resentment, Coppola doesn’t focus on villainizing the studio heads, but instead sincerely assesses their business stance, his passion as a filmmaker, and the events that led to his dismissal. Before it’s all over, he also takes the time to give an overview of his extensive research, different drafts of his screenplay, and the resistance he encountered from Patton’s surviving relatives. The only downside to Coppola’s chat is a series of long silent stretches throughout the film’s three hour duration. However, considering the fact that he didn’t actually direct the film, such gaps are certainly understandable.
- History Through the Lens: Patton, A Rebel Revisited (SD, 90 minutes) -- I assume that exploring the historical Patton’s troubled history, his influential military career, and Coppola’s sweeping adaptation of his life would not be an easy task to undertake, but this substantial feature is almost as interesting as the film itself. Utilizing archive footage, historian commentaries, and an avalanche of interviews (from sources associated with George S. Patton himself as well as those connected with the film), this documentary examines the fine line between Coppola’s script and fact. I learned more than I thought I would about the director’s research and his efforts to capture the essence of the notorious general. More to the point, I came to understand the roots of Patton’s extremist values and obsession with historical conflicts. The documentary even finds the time to cover the film’s behind-the-scenes drama, its Oscar windfall, and the reactions of a variety of industry insiders along the way.
- Patton’s Ghost Corps (SD, 47 minutes) -- This heart-wrenching follow up introduces us to the veterans of Patton’s Third Army, a group of soldiers the general left to fend for themselves while he went to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Their detailed firsthand accounts can be difficult to stomach in one sitting, but they offer an important counterpoint to Patton’s achievements. Still haunted by the memories of their fallen brethren, the veterans recount their survival, sacrifice, and abandonment. With each blunt story, the palpable disdain they feel for Patton paints a more unsettling and revealing picture of the general than any other feature on the disc.
- The Making of Patton (SD, 50 minutes) -- This is an older documentary that was first produced for the 1997 ‘Patton’ laserdisc release (and has been included on several subsequent DVD releases). As such, a large portion of the material is redundant to features found elsewhere on the disc. It’s a decent enough documentary on its own, but compared to the included other behind-the-scenes material, it falls a bit short.
- Behind-the-Scenes Still Gallery (SD, 53 minutes) -- At nearly an hour long, I was surprised by the length of this photo montage, and even more so that I remained engaged through the entire thing. The element that most captured my attention was the audio essay by Charles Provence that plays overtop of the gallery. It serves as a commentary of sorts about the historical Patton and his controversial career. Provence hits on quite a few details mentioned elsewhere on the disc, but he still serves as an exemplary commentator on Patton’s beliefs, accomplishments, and legacy.
- Production Still Gallery (SD, 36 minutes) -- Anyone who doesn’t enjoy listening to a solid film score will be bored to tears with this gallery after five minutes. It simply plays Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score while shuffling through production photographs.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes)
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’Patton’ is a masterpiece based on a multi-layered script by Francis Ford Coppola that features one of the most significant lead performances in cinematic history. Happily this new 2-disc BD release is as impressive as the film itself, offering an excellent video transfer, an above average DTS-HD MA catalog audio track, and a vast reservoir of supplements that are worth the price of admission alone. Granted, it may not boast the technical perfection of the very best catalog remasters on the format, but it comes pretty close.
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